2016 Mummers Parade
The Philadelphia Mummers Parade is a folk festival with ancient roots. Similar traditions go back to the Saturnalia of the Roman Empire. A more recent, direct ancestor is the Mummers play of 15th-16th century England. As it is an American tradition, there are many other influences, especially that of the Swedes who were amongst the first settlers of the Philadelphia area.
It is a curious fact that the historical development of the Mummers mirrors that of photography. Mummers were more spontaneous and unorganized through the beginning of the 19th century until the formation of the Chain Gang in 1840. In photography, attempts to freeze a captured photographic image took place through the beginning of the 1800’s until Daguerre published instructions for his process in 1839.
The Mummers were officially banned in the 19th century (although not enforced) until the 1880’s when the city began offering permits to organized clubs. In the 1880’s George Eastman developed modern film and commercialized the photographic process. In 1901 the first official parade was held and the Kodak Brownie was first offered for sale, and subsequently democratized photography.
The traditional symbols and tropes of the Mummers Parade are like artifacts from a time capsule from the mid-18th century. It is from here that we find the Orientalist fascination with Egypt and indigenous civilizations like the Aztecs, which are staples of the parade. It is also where we find both the post-War of 1812 “Uncle Sam" Americana and the Comic Divisions Wenches, which are taken from the Minstrel show of that era. These are symbols and imagery from another century and have become almost simulacra; for the Mummers they represent the parade itself not the things they represent, the context of which has been lost in the mists of time.
The Saturnalia tradition itself has an equally ambiguous nature. It is a day when the lower classes poke fun at those in power (this year the Pope, who visited the city earlier in the year, stood out as a juicy target) and generally snub their noses at lawfulness (at no other time during the year, for example, are open containers of alcohol permitted on the streets). On the other hand the Saturnalia can’t help but use the symbols of the larger culture and, unwittingly or not, promulgate the message of those in power. In the end, who makes myth?
This last point was, essentially, the main political thrust of the Black Lives Matter protest of the parade this year, where I could not help but relish the spectacle of civil disobedience breaking out during Saturnalia, a festival itself dedicated to breaking the rules of civil boundaries.
So 2016 was an interesting year for the parade, which itself is nothing more than the expression of the aspirations of the people who participate in it. The celebration of a new year is a celebration of what has come before but also a hopeful gaze into the future. It is that moment in between when we wish to stop time and perfect it, to make it equal to our dreams for it. For most, that simply means freezing time just long enough so that it can embody joy - to quote, "the tomb-youth-food and drink-death-copulation-the conceiving of new life-laughter.”
I love the Mummers Parade because it is one of the few truly authentic folk festivals that tap into our pre-modern unconscious. It is an agricultural celebration of life (the coming spring) over death (the cold hard winter), much like the Christmas tradition but with pagan sass. They don’t call it the Mummers Strut for nuthin’.